Punk Rock Pastor Joe Furey's Life of Addiction, Loss and Recovery Makes Him the Perfect Man to Preach to the Imperfect
Illustration: Tim Foley | Design: Dustin Ames
Even though it's 10 a.m. on a Sunday, the rear courtyard of His Place could easily be the parking lot of a local bar right after a punk-rock show. The fiery popping sounds of motorcycle tailpipes bounce off asphalt, as choppers idle in makeshift parking spaces. January's morning chill is accented with gruff chatter, perfume and cigarette smoke. A co-ed pack of tattooed hard-asses mill around; some are glassy-eyed and ravaged from the night before.
But as the back doors to the building swing open and the motley crew files inside, it's clear they are all anxious to hear Pastor Joe Furey's weekly sermon. The beginning of every service at Chestnut Street in Westminster, just off the 405 freeway, starts with dozens kneeling and at the foot of the church's main stage, also known as the altar, to pray and confess their sins to God. Outfitted in a black collared shirt and jeans, Furey's fit, 5-foot-8 frame moves nimbly through the scrunched-up congregants. Jets of gray stream from the temples of his closely cropped brown hair. As he passes, he puts his hands on the shoulders of each parishioner, praying quickly and silently with them. Some have fallen off the wagon or are fresh out of the drunk tank; others have been abandoned once again by loved ones.
The crowd at His Place are the kind of people the Bible tells us Jesus might have actually hung out with—the people society doesn't want, the un-savable. And his ability to focus the punk passion of his followers toward Christianity makes him a rare find in OC's alternative-church culture. In the 18 years since Furey took over His Place, its population continues to burst at the seams, despite the church having no particular cachet with the hipster Christian set, no TV network, no reality show, no glass megachurch.
It's a simple place run by a humble, charismatic pastor who can look into the eyes of a coke addict, a thief, a workaholic, and not only see a lost soul, but a bit of himself as well. Furey's history of drug abuse, addiction, loss and recovery is harrowing, and though he doesn't oversell it in every sermon, it plays a huge role in his journey through pastorhood, whether he's talking about his days as a dope dealer or losing his son to a heroin overdose.
Once the doors close and Furey is alone with his flock, nothing matters except that they are all there together and trying to find the same path. "We're all broken; we all have issues," Furey says. "You don't get cleaned up to go to church. You go to church to get cleaned up."
* * *
Furey remembers the first line of coke he snorted.
It was April of 1977. A 22-year-old basketball coach at La Purisima Catholic School in El Modena at the time, young Furey traded a coke dealer (his future brother-in-law) a sizable amount of primo bud for a small baggy of white powder, which he stashed in his wallet until the fateful day he decided to do a bump before practice. The sensation is still vivid—the spark of neurons in his brain illuminating like neon signs on the Vegas strip, the fool's sense of clarity, of utter godliness.
"From the first moment, I was like, 'Wow! This is for me!'" Furey recalls.
An OC-raised Catholic, his childhood had all the hallmarks of a typical religious upbringing—the schooling, the sacraments, the alcoholism. He also had a hidden cross to bear: being molested by his local priest—Father Michael D. Buckley—from the time he was in seventh grade until around the time he started high school.
As a kid, Furey sat his siblings in a circle around him while he played priest, passing out fake paper Eucharist. He was a sharp boy who sometimes had trouble fitting in, especially at Mater Dei High School, where he attempted to be a jock on the basketball team but mostly ended up riding the bench. His drug use started with puffing joints in the school parking lot after class.
Furey was quiet, so most people didn't know he was a natural-born leader, the eldest of eight kids. When Furey was just 17, his father—a hardworking product of the Great Depression—passed away of pancreatic cancer at age 49. Though the two hardly spoke, the early death of his workaholic father convinced Furey that being a workaday slave wasn't the way to go. He started dealing coke and weed on a regular basis. Meanwhile, he helped to raise his siblings and mentor his brothers as their basketball coach at La Purisima until cops nabbed one of his young customers, who had a ledger with all the drugs he'd bought from Furey. Within days, Furey was busted and fired from his coaching job.
Still intent on his sketchy line of work, Furey became a mule in a short-lived, four-person, dope-smuggling ring in 1979; their mission was to fly to South America posing as two male-female couples on separate flights. They traveled from Ecuador to Peru and keistered a sizable amount of coke to bring back to the U.S. through LAX, but the DEA busted all four at the airport; three were charged, and two were convicted. Fortunately for Furey, the woman who accompanied him refused to rat him out. He managed to not incriminate himself during interrogation and miraculously avoided a body-cavity search.
"I never thought we really had our act together, and by the time I tried to back out, I was told by the people who sent us that it wasn't a possibility and that bad things would happen to me if I did," Furey says. "It was one of the stupidest things I've ever done. I did get some good coke out of it, though."
Following his near-bust, Furey's days as a street-level drug pusher were over—though he continued to use like a fiend, committing random thefts in a quest to remain high. He got a gig driving a truck for Budweiser at age 25, with routes all over Huntington Beach—up and down Beach Boulevard, liquor stores, dive bars, extinct hallowed haunts such as the Golden Bear. Furey soon married his girlfriend Therese, a slender, brunette beauty, the little sister of his longtime friend, the coke dealer who introduced him to his favorite poison. He'd known Therese for years, lived next door to her for a time and became smitten.
Though the couple suffered because of Furey's drug addiction, they started a family. A son, Gabriel, was born, followed by twin girls, Sarah and Bridget. Although he had a steady job working for Budweiser, Furey was stealing beer to buy coke, sometimes lifting about 100 cases per week and selling them on the side for cash. "If you trusted me, I'd steal from you," he candidly admits. He kept hundreds stashed for drug money while pitching in as little as $60 each week to take care of his family.
"He'd dropped a lot of weight, and the connection was gone," Therese says. "Something was going on with him that I was afraid of, and I feared he was going to either overdose or go to jail . . . but I loved him."
Despite being a hopeless addict, Furey still had a thirst for religion. He had stacks of books in his dingy home library about Buddhism and Hinduism, and he studied Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi. Furey often experimented with LSD to gain a "higher consciousness."
When he was 29, his childhood friend Kirk, who converted to Christianity while he was in college, came back into Furey's life. They talked about gospel, the Apostles and God whenever they were together—Furey mostly just humored him, he says.
One day, Kirk took Furey to El Camino Park in Orange, where he led his sick friend in reciting the Sinner's Prayer. "I was expecting bells and whistles and bombs and whatever, and nothing happened . . . except I didn't feel high," Furey says.
Instead, the only real effect of Furey's studies of an all-forgiving God seemed to be his decision to go on a huge drug-and-stealing binge for which, he reasoned, he would ultimately be forgiven. The addict was living a dual life, now going to church on Sundays and being around people who looked and acted perfect and seemed so nice. It was as though they'd been given some sort of "magic sprinkle dust" that made them act that way, Furey says.
After giving birth to the twins, Therese decided she had to take the kids and leave him until he got clean. Old photos of Furey holding their daughters, his eyes glassy and coked-out, are hard for him to look at now. But, at the time, Therese's decision to leave made him livid.
Finally, Furey experienced a life-altering change at a local fleabag, the Big A Motel, where he holed up after moving out of the family's house in Orange. He sat knee-deep in the frothy, emerald water of a mossy Jacuzzi, mentally replaying his lifetime of drug-addled screw-ups. Depressed and angry with Therese over the split, he went back to his room, fired up some porn on the crappy color TV, sat on the edge of his bed and cut up more lines to snort. It was in that dark moment, Furey says, that God spoke to him, an unmistakable booming tone that tingled the hairs on the back of his neck and straightened his spine.
"What do you want out of life?" the voice asked, its echo filling the room.
As soon as he heard that question, Furey says, he burst into tears.
"I was 29 and a half years old. I had nothing going on in my life. I just wanted my kids," he says. The next day, he agreed to go with Therese to Care Unit rehab, formerly in Orange.
By 1985, Furey had sobered up and was busy giving testimony of his struggles for sobriety at three different churches through a Christian 12-step group called the Overcomers. He became a model employee at his job; he had even 'fessed up to his boss about the beer he had been stealing for years. Miraculously, the boss excused it and didn't fire him, though perhaps it's fitting penance for a recovering addict to drive a beer truck for a living.
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The young gun in the Overcomers impressed the organization, particularly an early mentor and group ministry leader of his, an older vet named Jess Maples. When Maples died abruptly a year later, Furey was elected to run Maples' 12-step Christian group, even though at the time he would describe himself as biblically illiterate. "I had this drunk guy in a meeting once, and I [thought I] was quoting from the Bible, and he goes, 'Hey, dude, I don't know everything, but I know that's wrong!' And that's been my walk with God pretty much," Furey explains. "I've been in it and learning while I'm doing it."
In 1988, Furey signed on to become a chaplain for the OC Rescue Mission in Tustin, despite the dramatic cut in pay compared with his former truck-driving gig. He was ordained as a pastor the following year.
He came across a tiny, unknown church in Huntington Beach called His Place in 1996 that was in need of a new head pastor. With more than two decades of expertise in drug rehab, he was equipped to be a fisher of men and women who were already caught on one drug or another. His style of ministry has always been fiery and charismatic in a Jim Carrey style—lots of shouting, arms flailing and the occasional bout of physical comedy. And he could speak directly to those who were rough around the edges. From Furey's first sermon, it was clear the quiet His Place was about to undergo some drastic changes.
* * *
On a recent Friday around 7 p.m., the church is bustling with people. Weekly AA meetings for men and women are a big deal at this church and typically draw large crowds.
Among those in attendance are Jonny Ray Bartel, a co-pastor, and Chris Jones, a pastoral intern, both of whom are band members of a local Christian punk band called the Heroes. Bartel, who is also a bassist for X's country folk offshoot the Knitters and formerly of big-time blues band the Red Devils, is a blond rockabilly type with Chuck Taylors and an impeccably greased pompadour. He sits a few chairs away from guitarist Jones, an enthusiastic, darker-haired version of Mike Ness in a tight gray shirt and gold wristwatch; the ink on his knuckles spell out "SICK" on one hand, "LIFE" on the other. He has adapted the meaning of SICK to "Soldier In Christ's Kingdom."
His Place migrated to Westminster in April 2012, as the number of followers ballooned to around 500, vastly outgrowing the tiny, old facility in Huntington Beach. Thanks to in-house fund-raising, philanthropy and financial help from the international fellowship Assemblies of God, they were able to turn the drab new compound into a refurbished 27,000-square-foot space that suits their needs. Today, most of the ministries are run by rehabilitated worshippers—including a good number of local musicians—who've had their lives turned around by faith.
Sitting in the circle of couples and singles with Furey at the center of the large, plain room, Bartel and Jones take turns sharing stories about how this church really helped them in their struggles with organized religion, not to mention their commitment to stay clean from heroin, their shared former deadly substance of choice. Since joining the church, Jones says, he did relapse after being clean for eight years, but he fought back, and on Jan. 27, he'll celebrate one new year of sobriety. A lot of that is thanks to Furey, whom Jones says stuck by him when the guitarist was terribly sick and fighting hard to kick his habit again.
"He even let me stay at his house one weekend," Jones says, quipping, "probably because his wife was on vacation! But he saved me, man. And he's rolled up his sleeves and ministered to me through hard times."
Jones and Bartel are no strangers to the alternative-church scene—both worked with another local church in Huntington Beach before moving to His Place. They agree it was Furey's straight talk and humility about his past that drew them in. Bartel jokingly calls Furey the Stevie Ray Vaughan of Preachers.
"There's nobody better, and he doesn't act like he's bitchen. Most really good guitar players act like jerks, but Stevie Ray was always super-sweet and super-cool and helpful," Bartel says. "One thing I like about the way Joe preaches is that he shares his limitations and his sins and he's super-transparent, whereas a lot of pastors are really afraid to really expose their human side. . . . [Furey is] very rare."
For Matt Maynard, a stocky, tattooed former white-power thug from Huntington Beach who went into AA dried out and sick, with chiseled teeth and an ankle bracelet, this was the first place that gave him a kind of unconditional acceptance. Of course, getting clean still didn't lead to an easy road—in the several years he has been at His Place, Maynard has gotten married and found employment, but also experienced the death of a best friend and the suicide of his sister. Those last two events might've caused him to go on a week-long bender, but his sense of loyalty to Furey and the people there kept him level-headed. Or, as he puts it, "a nerd with a paint job."
He explains, "You can put this paint job on any one of these guys in here, and you ain't gonna know the difference. We're all still the same peeps."
Mike Worley, one of His Place's enthusiastic prospects, is part of the men's group ministry, Men Accountable to Christ (MAC). Sitting next to his colleague Jeff Soumokil, Worley says his own past as a guy in the punk-rock scene and the attitude of those who've been healed through his church are the best ways to convert people who are masters of putting up emotional walls just by their appearance.
"God has raised up a special group of people who aren't afraid to go to the fringe," says Worley. "As a matter of fact, we'll walk into it, and if it gets too soft, we'll go look for another place."
Over the years, His Place pastors have grown accustomed to picking up vans full of people, bringing them to church from sober-living homes. But many hear about His Place through word of mouth.
Scott Troske, a former bassist of OC punk heroes Drain Bramaged, as well as the Addicts, went from doing a bid in the state penitentiary to now serving at the church; he teaches youth Sunday school and hopes to become an ordained minister. "I used to sing songs and be in bands that openly mocked God and religion—that was just our way of life and how we looked at the world," he says. "I look back at some of those old songs, and I see a totally different person. Am I perfect? No—but nothing like I was."
In fact, Troske's sentiment is actually the slogan on the church's marquee, the first thing people see when they drive up: "A Perfect Place for Imperfect People."
* * *
The His Place Furey preaches in now resembles nothing of what it was when he started. The original congregation was little more than 30 people in two schoolhouse-looking buildings totaling 5,200 square feet, with just two toilets. Most of the parents were über-traditional God-fearers who home-schooled their kids. Though Furey was ready to unload his knowledge about recovery, his gritty message wasn't very welcome.
"There are people who didn't like the whole recovery thing, who didn't feel like they needed to recover from anything," says Soumokil, who has been with the church since its Huntington Beach days. "Their lives were apparently just perfect. So they left."
Soon, most of the conservative congregation—including the board of directors—decided to split. The crowd on Sundays turned into a hodgepodge of the homeless, feisty Southern Baptist types, alcoholic bankers, prostitutes, punkers and people barely holding themselves together.
Furey preached several times each week in an effort to rebuild the church crowd while also serving at the Rescue Mission as a chaplain. Meanwhile, his family had been put on the back burner. His own kids were also developing a negative outlook toward church; each of them dabbled with drugs and alcohol. "I became a workaholic for the Kingdom of God," Furey says. "And my kids paid the price, and my wife paid the price."
Still, he was understandably shocked when one of his daughters, Bridget, wound up pregnant at age 16. The other, Sarah, joined the Navy at 18. Gabe had grown into a bright guy with dyed jet-black hair and tattoos and was an accomplished drummer in local Christian metalcore band Iron Sharpens Iron—and he was developing a secret addiction to pills.
"My siblings all felt it," Sarah says. "And it's understandable because my dad was running the entire show and didn't have the people to back him up. I understand now, but back then, it was more like we came second."
But that resentment from his kids did not compare to the devastation from Gabe's tragic death years later, just when everything seemed to be going right for him. On Aug. 17, 2011, Gabe was found dead on the floor of the family's downstairs bathroom in Orange. He was just 29 on that hot afternoon. Gabe and his new wife, Katie, had just moved back in with his parents while starting up a new business, playing in his band and coping with his pill addiction. Authorities found only one needle mark on Gabe's arm, but it was from the lethal dose that took his life. The loss was indescribable.
"I was pissed off," Furey says. "I felt like God didn't have my back. I felt like, for 25 years, I fought to help people in this arena, and he let it take my son. That just ain't cool. . . . It's the most devastating thing that ever happened to me."
He was at his lowest point since his days as an addict, Furey remembers. Days after Gabe's death, he stood in his back yard at dusk, holding a Bible in his hand, challenging God to make sense out of what had happened to his family. "Arrogantly, I said, 'I know this thing pretty good. Even the best theologians don't know the fullness of God's word. What can you show me to comfort me?'"
It was then, Furey says, he heard God's voice again, booming in his ears. "You want comfort; I'll show you heaven!"
Throughout his spiritual journey of street-level ministry, rarely had Furey done any in-depth studies on heaven, even as a pastor. The epiphany started him on a three-month obsession to find everything he could about the pearly gates. He poured over books and scripture that described the place he believed his son had gone.
The search gave him solace and strength, enough to start a new grief-recovery ministry at His Place. After crying every day for the past two years, Therese is finally starting to feel joy again. In the process of grieving for her son, she has realized, along with Furey, that they are now comforted by the church community they created. Instead of judging them or whispering about them in the pews, the outcasts they've helped to save are the ones who helped them through their darkest time.
"Just to know who Jesus is and who he hung out with—it was the people who go to our church; they're my closest friends," she says, flicking away tears. "They're just real, and I like that."
* * *
For as long as he can remember, Furey says, he would always start every new year at His Place with a theme. The idea sounds corny until you see how many of them include battle metaphors. Last year, the theme was "Take New Territory." The result? On Feb. 16, they're opening a second His Place at its former Huntington Beach location. Its primary objective is to be a church that focuses on broken and blended families. Sure, it could've spent more money on a better sound system or flashier amenities, but that was never what brought people to His Place to begin with.
"I think some churches, if I were to complain about them, like to build up instead of out," Furey says.
The motto for this year is "Destroy the Works of the Enemy." For that job, Furey has embarked on a new project, Gabe's Homes. To be run by longtime ministry leaders Ross and Jamie Martinez, they'll be focused, short-term sober-living condos near the church that will not only give people a place to stay, but also provide classes on finance, job hunting and tithing, as well as help them to get clean of their addictions.
A couple of weeks ago, led by Sons of Thunder, a rough-and-tumble ministry working adjacent with His Place, dozens of men gathered for an AA meeting that was also a celebration. A few members were presented with sobriety chips; they'd been dry anywhere from 1 to 15 years. Slices of store-bought chocolate cake were passed around. Furey sat in the back with Jones.
The crowd was just as mixed as it is on Sunday—suit-wearing professionals, grizzly blue-collar men and teenage youngsters looking as bored as ever. One guy who was asked to share his testimony wasn't really in the mood to speak. He said he'd just pissed away 27 months of sobriety by going on a binge three weeks ago. He sat cross-legged in his chair, his right foot jittering as he stared at the ground.
"Right now, I'm so angry at myself that it's almost tough to say I wanna do the right thing, or that I want it all to be okay," he says. "Why would you wanna be nice to a guy that you hate? That's how I feel about myself."
When he finished, Jones piped up from the other side of the room. He also knew the pain and self-loathing of backsliding into addiction. But he shared what Furey had taught him about why none of that matters when you're still in a fight for your life and looking for help. "Just because you relapse, dude, doesn't mean that all that you picked up for 27 months is out the window. All we have is today—that's it. There's a few guys in here that have put a few todays together. . . . It's been a hard year, but I haven't had a drink over it, and I'm grateful for that. God's a good guy, but he's not a magic wand."
As Jones said that, Furey smiled, cracking a side glance at someone he'd help to save who was now trying to talk sense into another lost soul. It's a cycle he prays for continuously, one he talked about a few days later on Sunday while facing his congregation of the damaged, the recovering and the faithful. The message of the sermon was on the power of mind control, the battle between new ways of thinking versus old beliefs. It's a theme you could find in any number of songs from the Dead Kennedys or Fugazi, only its power is being drawn from the pulpit instead of the mosh pit. Thanks to Furey and a spiritual place to call home, Christ's wounded warriors are coming one step closer to winning the battle for their souls. Of course, no sermon is complete without a few wisecracks to lighten the mood—and a request for five more minutes to finish his final thought.
"I can look around this room, and I know many, many of you . . . the first time I met you, you were high or drunk. . . . Well, you came to the right place," he says as he scans the room to a roar of laughter. Furey tilts his head down, smiling, and joins in, laughing with them, not at them. It's not as though he has ever been in a position to do otherwise.
"Usually, the clergy are really close to God, and they don't sin like everybody else, and the laity is different," Furey says. "No, we're all in the same boat. I sit in a different position, but I'm in the boat."
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